Sunday, July 23, 2006

Patrick White

As has been reported elsewhere, Patrick White's novel The Eye of the Storm was used in another of those tricks in which a portion of a prize-winning novel of the past is typed out and re-submitted to publishers, passed off as new work by a fictional writer. As in the other cases, the publishers declined to take on White's novel, employing varying degrees of condescension and scorn in their responses.

I tend to think that such pranks are generally rather pointless, although they make for amusing copy. It's not clear to me what is being proven that wasn't already known. Yes, publishing is rife with philistinism. And, yes, though books like White's, which doubtless didn't sell well at any time, did indeed, obviously, get published in the past, the industry is much different now, at least the mainstream houses are anyway. Is this exactly news? That said, I like that the story has brought more attention to this writer. I first discovered Patrick White, perhaps inevitably, via the Complete Review. Their effusive praise of White put him at the top of my list of writers to look into. But it turns out that all but one of his books is out of print in the U.S. (the exception is the NYRB edition of Riders in the Chariot). I had it in my head that I had to read Voss first, but I was unable to find even a used copy. Finally, on a trip to London three years ago, I did find Voss used, as well as another White novel, The Twyborn Affair. I read Voss later that year, and I was astonished. A magnificent, powerful book. Since then, I have acquired used editons of three other White novels: the aforementioned Riders in the Chariot, The Solid Mandala, and the book at the center of the current controversy, The Eye of the Storm. Of these three, I've so far read the first two. I have yet to be disappointed.

Anyway, my favorite of the ones I've read is Riders in the Chariot, but I'm going to share some passages from The Solid Mandala, because I already have them copied out in my notebook. Page numbers are all from the old Penguin edition that I have.
...she went on down the steps, her red-roughened chest ending where the secrecy of white breast began. (p.72)
...even where there were flaws in the past, they fascinated, like splinters in the flesh. (p.74)
When his thoughts grew too much for him, too blurred, or too entangled, his mind a choked labyrinth without a saving thread, Waldo Brown would stalk along the country roads, exchanging his own blurred world for that other, dusty, external, but no more actual one, in which he continued hoping to discover a distinct form, some object he hadn't noticed before, while Arthur kicking up the dust behind--it was impossible to escape Arthur unless Arthur himself chose to escape--conducted his monologue, if not dialogue with dust or sun, pee-wee or green-sprouted cow turd. Like injustice, the dust always recurred to daze, unless from a sudden mushroom of it, Mrs. Musto's chariot unwound, honking by her orders to warn pedestrians of her coming. (p.83) he approached down Mrs. Musto's winding drive of raked gravel he realized worse was in store for him. He could hear quite plainly the felted sound of tennis balls as they were struck thudding back and forth. The gathering of 'youngsters', judging by its numbers, was fully assembled on Mrs. Musto's lawns. There was positively a smell of tennis. The four elect performers, each older than himself, it seemed to Waldo, were also far more adept, more graceful, if not better born, at least wealthier. Young men reaching overhead with their rackets revealed their glorious ribs through transparent shirts. Delicious girls, in pearls of perspiration, appeared to have been at it all their lives as they controlled their skirts in running to dish up a ball.

Waldo was appalled. (p.87)
...although memory is the glacier in which the past is preserved, memory is also licensed to improve on life. [...] There are those who considered the eyes too pale, too cold, without realizing that to pick too deeply in the ice of memory is to blench. (p.192)
For more information, see the Complete Review's Patrick White page, as well as this editorial in the Australian, by Peter Craven. Also, I look forward to following the discussions at the newly formed group blog, the Patrick White Readers' Group.


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